The Four Noble Truths

Upon attaining enlightenment, Gautama Buddha gave his first sermon at Deer Park in northern India. It was at this time that he expressed the ideas that would become the foundation for what is known as Buddhism. These are “The Four Noble Truths” and the “Eightfold Path.” Simply put the Four Noble Truths are observations on the basic nature of human existence and the Eightfold Path is a way to live your life.

The Four Noble Truths, as expressed by Gautama Buddha are:
1- All existence is suffering
2- The cause of this suffering is ignorance
3- There is a way to overcome this suffering
4- The way is the Eightfold Path

Unfortunately, the word “suffering” is the best translation of the original Pali word “dukkha.” Dukkha is also translated as ills, unrest, evil and unease. The basic idea is that all human life contains unpleasant events. We encounter misfortune, sickness and death. Those we love encounter the same. No one who has ever lived has not had dukkha. Buddhism focuses on overcoming the suffering these misfortunes bring. A Buddhist minister in Chicago, in response to a comment during an interfaith dialogue that “Buddhists think all life is misery,” said, “No, what Buddhists feel is that suffering is inevitable, misery is optional.”

That sums up the Buddhist approach to life. You cannot change the past and the future is only an ideal. The only thing that truly exists is the “eternal now.” We determine the level of misery caused for us by life’s misfortunes. This is the teaching of the Second Noble Truth. It is our ignorance that causes this misery.

This ignorance has nothing to do with knowledge. Our ego is the basis of this ignorance. This is the feeling that somehow we are an entity separate from other humans and the universe in general. In Buddhism, unlike most religions, there is not a belief in an unchanging, immutable, eternal soul. There is no deity to seek salvaton from nor to look to as the cause of our misfortunes. Buddhism does not say that God does not exist, it simply says we are responsible for our own level of misery or happiness. Sort of like the old saying, “God helps those who help themselves.”

This feeling of being separate leads to anger, jealousy, greed , lust, anger and other negative emotions. “Why is this happening to ME?” “Why did he do that to ME?” “Why does he have more than ME?” These questions gnaw at the very core of our being and bring us misery. Buddhism helps us understand that misfortunes happen to everyone and they happen for a reason. It is only when we understand that we are not alone in our suffering and when we can recognize the cause of our suffering that we can overcome this suffering. The Third and Fourth Noble Truths offer the path to this understanding. I will touch on this next month.